Chief HMI welcomes debate on ‘ethical leadership’ but performance measures she supports undermine this

Janet Downs's picture

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspectors, welcomes the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) Commission on ethical leadership in her October Commentary.  Many school leaders, she says, are ‘working to revitalise curriculum thinking to ensure that the content of young people’s learning takes precedence over performance tables.’ 

Earlier in her commentary she endorses recent reforms in primary and secondary exams.  They were a ‘marked improvement on their predecessors’, she writes.   This despite Ofqual’s recent ruling that the 2016 Reading SAT was ‘unduly hard’.    And Spielman doesn’t seem alarmed about English pupils being among the most-tested in the world.

Although Spielman’s concern about how accountability measures can distort what is taught in schools is welcome, she shouldn’t be blaming schools.  Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, told Schools Week it was ‘hardly surprising’ schools concentrated on SATs and GCSEs because ‘that’s how their performance is measured’

 ‘If Ofsted wants them to focus less on these assessments, we would suggest it lobbies the government for a change to the accountability system rather than criticising schools.’

Spielman was right to say ‘teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding’.  This criticism isn’t new.  Six years ago, the OECD warned that the excessive focus on GCSE results in England was worrying and risked negative consequences.  As well as teaching to the test, these included ‘gaming’ and concentrating on the easily-measured at the expense of non-cognitive skills.  

There is ‘little debate’ about the curriculum, Spielman said.  Again, she shouldn’t be surprisedFormer Education Secretary Michael Gove closed down debate by saying those who criticised his curriculum ideas were ‘Marxists’ or the ‘Blob’.  But Spielman’s call for a debate is undermined by her support for the Gove curriculum – it has ‘promise and potential’ which many schools aren’t fulfilling.

One little-discussed aspect of a national curriculum is how far a government should impose its views on schools.  ‘The substance of the curriculum is a matter for government policy,’ says Spielman.  This is dangerous.  Totalitarian regimes impose curriculum on their schools – governments in a free society should set a framework and leave it to schools to design a curriculum appropriate for their pupils.  Spielman rightly highlights the importance of curriculum design by teachers but doesn’t seem to be aware that a centrally-imposed curriculum works against this.

‘Ofsted has a role in judging how well schools reflect the government’s intentions and don’t distort the aims that have been set,’ Spielman writes.  This reduces Ofsted to a government poodle.  Ofsted’s role should be to judge how well a school’s curriculum meets the needs of its pupils.  Pupils are the centre of education not governments.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 12/10/2017 - 13:03

The pressure on schools to do all the bad thiings that Amanda Spielman  deplores is a deep rooted consequence of the school performance indicators at KS2 and GCSE that are required to feed the 'choice' ethic of marketisation. Janet and ASCL are right to point this out, but for the Chief Inspector to accept that such gaming and curriculum degradation has a detrimental effect on the learning and cognitive development of all pupils is nevertheless a major step forward.

However it is not new. You can read  Professor Alastair Sharp's article on 'the unintended consquences of the school testing regime' here.

He writes as follows.

What kind of ‘distortions’ have occurred? School league tables, ‘payment by results’ for teachers and pressure on school students have inevitably resulted in the need to ‘teach to the test’. Teaching to the test can be defined as a concentration on skills and activities that increase test scores with little concern for the depth of learning or understanding. This ‘commodification of learning’ results when education becomes merely a test score. A reduced concern for education is necessary as teachers prepare students for a narrowly focused test on which schools and students are judged. School education and instruction has become increasingly measurement driven – if you can’t measure it, exclude it!

Test scores and educational standards are not the same thing.

Section 3.6 of my book, 'Learning Matters' also addresses this issue. You can read much of it here.

This is an excerpt.

So what is lost by ‘teaching to the test’? This is the question that led (the late) Philip Adey, Professor of Applied Psychology at King’s College, London, to devote his professional life to seeking an answer (1.5 in, ‘Learning Matters‘). He was a chemistry teacher who became obsessed with the issue of ‘difficulty’. Why do some students find some concepts more difficult than others and what can be done about it? It would be hard to find any maths or science teacher that has not pondered this problem, or for that matter teachers of English literature exploring concepts of parody, satire and an allegory.

Teaching to the test deflects from the necessity of helping students identify precisely what it is that they don’t understand and how such understanding can be achieved. If a student just ‘doesn’t get it’, this barrier cannot be overcome through acts of memory or repetition. Concepts have to be ‘developed’ in stages, not learned by rote.

But is this a major issue taxing the ‘Executive Principals’ of our schools or is it a case of,  ‘Never mind the quality feel the width’, the title of a popular sit-com first broadcast in 1967. Philip Adey teamed up with Michael Shayer to develop practical strategies to effectively address the issue of how students can be helped to understand difficult concepts as is explained in their book Learning Intelligence (2002).

The Chief Inspector adds to the concerns by drawing attention to the way that Academies and Free Schools have been using their 'freedoms' to 'hollow out the curriculum' - eg starting KS4 in Y9, so restricting a broader and more balances curriculum to years 7 & 8 and denying academic subjects to lower attaining students so also denying them the breadth of knowledge and cognitive development that flows from such studies. 'Innovation' has indeed been taking place in Academies and Free Schools, but it has been innovations in 'gaming' at the expense of deep learning that have emerged and corrupted LA schools that have to compete.

More recent innovations have been in the area of the abusive discipline methods  required to tyrranise children into compliance with the Gradgrinian curriculum that results.

So, Amanda, this is a start, but you have only dipped your toe in the water in exploring the reforms needed to bring back curriculm breadth and the joy of learning to all our pupils at all levels of attainment.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Fri, 13/10/2017 - 20:49

The script that Spielman is following was written in 2015.  The key document is still on the US Department of Education website:  Obama’s Testing Action Plan.  Most of Spielman’s talking points can be found here:

In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students […] creating undue stress for educators and students

States, districts, and educators should eliminate ‘drill and kill’ test prep that is a poor use of students’ and educators’ classroom time.

Students do best on high-quality assessments that actually measure critical thinking and complex skills

And so on.  The legislation which followed the Action Plan – the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December 2015 – actually did very little to change the test-driven accountability system created by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, thirteen years earlier.  States are still mandated to ‘annually measure the achievement of not less than 95 per cent of all students’ using standardised tests.  As the teacher and blogger Emily Talmage argued at the time, the Testing Action Plan was essentially a Trojan horse.  The Plan actually points very clearly to the next stage of privatisation.  It suggests that all schools should be ‘developing innovative new assessment instruments, such as […] technology-based academic assessments’.  They should be ‘using technology to administer and score assessments’.  More of the same can be found in the 600 or so pages of the Every Student Succeeds Act itself.  Schools should ‘improve the use of technology in order to improve the academic achievement […] of all students’, etc.

      Here in the UK, education technology – in other words, online instruction – is being aggressively promoted by the DfE and the big academy chains, especially Spielman’s friends at Ark (see here and here).  The problem is that the national accountability system, created almost thirty years ago, is now an obstacle to further ‘innovation’.  The demand that all students should study the same national curriculum, and sit the same standardised tests at the same points in their school careers, underpinned the marketisation and partial privatisation of state-funded education.  But, as developments in the USA show us, the old form of accountabilityhas become a barrier to the next step:  the full-scale privatisation of public education systems, with schools run and serviced by profit-making businesses.  Online instruction will be central to this next stage, because it allows the massive reductions in wage costs and overheads which will make running a school – or chains of schools – a viable business proposition.  It also opens vast new markets for publishers, tech firms, and other companies, as Rupert Murdoch recognised back in 2010.

      If Spielman is now wringing her hands about teaching to the test and a ‘hollowed-out’ curriculum, it is because the national curriculum – or the system of national standardised tests to which it has largely been reduced – is old news.  The future is online (and proprietary) learning platforms.  Each privately-run chain of schools will have its own, and each platform will incorporate a digital curriculum, delivered mainly via short videos, with built-in or ‘embedded’ tests.  The fact is that online instruction, currently marketed as ‘personalised learning’, actually involves more testing, rather than less.  When student-teacher ratios are at 50:1 or higher, it is the computer, rather than the teacher, which assesses the student’s ‘progress’.  This is done mainly through multiple-choice tests, which computers can ‘administer and score’.  The student reads a piece of text or watches a video, and takes a multiple-choice test.  Then she either moves on to the next video and a fresh test, or has to re-take the initial test.  This is what ‘personalised learning’ means:  continuous testing ‘integrated’ in a digital curriculum.  Or, to put it another way, a continuous stream of data to be processed by management information systems, and used both for marketing purposes (‘99.9% of students achieving 99.9% in every test!’) and for ‘robust’ performance management of staff.

      So the time has come for a strategic dismantling of the national accountability system.  In the US, this process began with Obama, and is continuing with Trump.  It’s interesting to compare Spielman’s recent pronouncements with Betsy DeVos’s responses to Tim Kaine during her Senate confirmation hearing.

Kaine: "And, if confirmed, will you insist upon […] equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives federal funding whether public, public charter or private?"

DeVos: "I support accountability."

Kaine: "Equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding?"

DeVos: "I support accountability."

Kaine: "OK, is that a yes or a no?"

DeVos: "That's a 'I support accountability.' "

Kaine: "Do you not want to answer my question?"

DeVos: "I support accountability."

What does Spielman’s talk about ‘badges and stickers’ really mean?  It means that, for the big academy chains, accountability is over.  And rolling back the old accountability system  – in the name of a ‘deep and rich curriculum’, or ‘learning in depth’, or ‘critical thinking’, or whatever PR line they come up with next – will open new possibilities for the automation of teaching, and the attendant ‘staffing and school design efficiencies’ (see here).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 14/10/2017 - 13:41

Matthew - I am sure that you are absolutely right about the changing nature of the privatisation model and the sinister implications of computerised 'individualised learning'.

In the 1970s Leicestershire 14-18 Community Colleges where I spent a large part of my teaching career, non computerised 'invidualised learning' was a major thrust of  the 'hard left' elements of the NUT. There were CSE/GCSE maths courses taught to classes of 80+ students through short sessions of didactic instruction followed by hours of 'death by worksheet', individualised study in which students were taught to access the worksheets in filing cabinets, while the three teachers running the class 'helped sudents that were stuck'.

The result was a deperate combination of acute boredom and low level displacement 'chatting'.  It was disastrous with very poor results.

The science department on the other hand ran what appeared to be traditional lab-based science lessons, which were enhanced by the informal 'call the teacher by the first name' ethic, which supported high quality student/student and student/teacher talk. 


The right wing criticism of such schools fed on the lack of uniform, relaxed relationships between students and teachers ,  which caused few problems, completely missing the really valid criticisms of 'individualised learning' approaches.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Sat, 14/10/2017 - 18:55

I’ve seen exactly the same atmosphere -- acute boredom and low level 'chatting' -- in classrooms where students are engaged in ‘blended’ or ‘personalised’ learning – i.e. spending most of their time on computers, filling in electronic worksheets and taking multiple-choice tests.  The only difference, perhaps – apart from the fact that the worksheets are electronic – is that these activities are very closely geared to the requirements of specific exam questions.  The students only learn what they need to know in order to maximize their score on these questions.  This means that the students' boredom has an edge of anxiety, creating a truly stultifying atmosphere.

Part of the marketing pitch for online instruction is that it gives students ‘control over [the] time, path, or pace’ of their learning (to quote from Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act).  As the US academic Douglas Noble showed long ago, in his book on online instruction and for-profit universities, precisely the same claims about ‘learning at your own pace’ were used to sell rip-off correspondence courses to the gullible and the desperate as far back as the 1920s.

Another echo of the ‘individualised learning’ you describe is the ed tech industry’s line that computer-based instruction ‘frees teachers to do what they do best’ – in other words, to ‘mentor’ individual students or small groups of students.  It’s really not worth considering what theory of education might underlie this curious idea – because none of this has anything to do with education.  ‘Freeing teachers to do what they do best’ means a combination of huge classes working alone on computers – perhaps supervised by a few unqualified assistants or ‘peer mentors’ – with small groups being pulled out (sometimes into ‘breakout rooms’) for intensive, face-to-face test prep with a teacher (based on the feedback from the online tests).  This arrangement allows the pioneers of ‘personalised learning’ (Kunskapsskolan, Rocketship, Summit) to obfuscate the issue of student-teacher ratios.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.